Of all the failures of the Aquino government for the past year, perhaps nothing is more glaring than its failure to pass the freedom of information (FOI) bill. All talk of good governance, of achieving greater transparency and accountability, of taking the straight path ring hollow when government cannot even guarrantee public access to the information needed for these things to happen.
The FOI bill almost passed in the 14th Congress. Two days before we were to adjourn for the third and final session, the approved bicameral conference committee was taken up on the floor. Just as we were to vote, members of the Majority questioned the quorum, lelading to an early adjournment and the Lower House’s failure to ratify the bill.
This was heartbreaking for proponents of the bill, akin to an ironman athlete leading the race then fracturing a leg a few meters from the finish line.
It was an open secret that the GMA administration loathed the idea of a law that would compel its agencies to provide the public access to any information about its operation, especially its questionable multibillion projects and financial transactions. This was not surprising. With so many things to hide, why indeed would the former president and her cohorts pass a law favoring more transparency and accountablility?
Thus, it was assumed that the Aquino presidency, being the declared antithesis of the Arroryo regime, would push for the bill’s passage post haste. I personally expected it to be the first measure to be enacted into law, if only to stress the President’s commitment to his “tuwid na daan.”
It came as a shock, therefore, to discover that the new admininstration itself was lukewarm to the FOI bill. It did not even merit one line in President Aquino’s first State of the Nation Address last year.
In subsequent hearings in the House Committee on Justice, representatives sent by Malacañang warned of bureaucratic nightmares, potential abuses and threats to national security if the bill was passed – the very same arguments used by the previous administration. No wonder Arroyo loyalists and sworn enemies of the FOI bill like Reps. Carlo Nograles and Pedro Romualdo were nodding in agreement.
Apparently, full access to information is one of those policies that you demand when you’re out of power but reject when you’re in power because, well, who wants people to be looking over your shoulder and peeping in your closets anyway?
This is really tragic because we all know the people’s right to official information is an indispensable element of a functioning democracy. The ideal of a government by the people presupposes that the people collectively and individually have access to information on matters of public concern in order to effectively exercise their sovereignty.
The free flow of information about the policies and activities of government asserts the fundamental principle of accountability and transparency in government. It provides the institutional foundation for a more responsive government by enhancing the capacity of the people to receive information and provide feedback on issues, programs and policies that concern their life and future. The bottomline is: a government which has nothing to hide should not be afraid of an informed and enlightened citizenry.
The people’s constitutional right to official information goes hand-in-hand with the constitutional policies of full public disclosure and honesty in public service.
Unfortunately, despite the constitutional guarantee and the judicial affirmation of the right to information, denial of access to information on matters of public concern remains widespread in the government bureaucracy. Thus the need for an FOI bill.
The big question now is will President Aquino continue to ignore this key policy measure and say nothing about it in his SONA? Will his fight against corruption be limited to holding officials of the previous government accountable while insulating his own regime from more stringent standards of transparency and accountability?
The “tuwid na daan” requires real changes in the way government is run. It requires empowering the people so that they can serve as guides, as checks and balances, to a system fraught with loopholes. Withouth an FOI, the govnment can run circles around us without us even knowing.#